“Girls,” the HBO series created by and starring Lena Dunham and executive produced by Judd Apatow, carries a lot of baggage for a show that’s technically about what a lot of TV is about, which is twentysomethings figuring out love, work and friendship, frequently while looking attractive. In its first season, which started in April of last year, it led to furious discussions about gender representations, responsibilities in terms of racial diversity of characters, depictions of sex and nudity and feminism. Sometimes it felt like more people were talking or flat out arguing about the series than actually watching it.
In its second season, which launches this Sunday, January 13th at 9pm, “Girls” feels largely unchanged in the face of so much scrutiny, which will be a good or bad thing depending on how one felt about the initial round of ten episodes. For me, it’s great — the show is stronger in its voice this season while coming across as less aggressively confrontational than it could be in its earlier installments. Dunham, as Hannah Horvath, is still quick to bear her non-TV-standard naked body, but it feels less like a provocation and more a part of her character, as someone who uses radical honesty as a defense mechanism.
Anyway, the explicit and awkward sex scenes and the bearing of untoned flesh have always drawn attention away from the most radical aspect of “Girls,” which is how it allows its characters to act like actual aimless young people, which sometimes means behaving in thoughtlessly self-involved and often ill-advised fashions. The main way in which “Girls” is misunderstood is in the assumption that the audience is supposed to approve of everything that Hannah and her friends Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) do, from Hannah’s tantrum after being cut off by her parents in the pilot onward. They are the heroines of the story, but they’re hardly heroic, except in the way that everyone is as they flounder toward adulthood.
The show demands empathy for its young women — something that proved impossible for some viewers — but its point of view is gently satirical and far from an endorsement. That people saw it as otherwise says more about the difficultly television continues to have with female characters’ flaws being portrayed as anything other than minor and adorable than about what’s actually on screen in “Girls.” Dunham’s foursome are among the few women on (scripted) TV who get to make genuine mistakes and behave in regrettable ways without hesitations about how this will affect their likability, something so rare that some took those actions as being somehow commended.
Season two picks up two months after season one ended, with Marnie staying with Shoshanna and still working, at least at the start, as a gallery assistant, and Jessa just returning from her honeymoon with finance guy Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd), whom she impulsively married in the season finale. Shoshanna is trying to figure out how to treat Ray (Alex Karpovsky) after he took her virginity, while Hannah is now living with Elijah (Andrew Rannells), her ex-boyfriend from college and now her new gay bestie.
The characters are all still making ferocious messes of their lives, but it’s Hannah and Marnie who dominate the first two episodes. The prim Marnie has to deal with the fact that her seemingly perfect life isn’t at all on track and that her attempts at spontaneity seem to always backfire terribly, as happens in a wincingly funny scene at the end of the season premiere. Hannah, meanwhile, turns ambivalence into cruelty when she dithers between Adam (Adam Driver), who broke up with her in the finale only to get hit by a truck, and a new black Republican boyfriend named Sandy (Donald Glover).
It’s through Hannah’s relationship with Sandy that “Girls” briefly explores race, a topic it’s taken heat for in the past. The addition of Glover in a guest arc isn’t going to change the fact that the show remains primarily white, but it does engage with how that whiteness is part of the insular nature of the characters’ lives despite how they might look at themselves as liberal and sophisticated — when Hannah does make a proclamation on the topic, it’s fittingly well-intentioned and tone deaf.
It’s something I’ll address more after the second episode airs, but the series’ lack of a protagonist of color has never really bothered me, because it’s not a show that strives to present a general overview of life in Brooklyn, life as a young person in New York or as, god forbid, a hipster. It’s about four characters who have big ideas about what their lives should be like, ones that aren’t reflected in the fairly narrow ones they’re leading. They should have friends of color, and they’d probably insist they do, but just, you know, don’t see them that often — because, in the end, their immediate circle is small and comfortably self-reflecting. Like a lot of what’s put on screen in “Girls,” it’s neither a positive nor unheard of, and that it becomes an explicitly raised point in this season makes it clear the show’s aware of it.
That gap between what the characters say they strive for and want versus what they actually do is “Girls” main font of humor and poignance, particularly when it comes to dating. “I’m going to make logical, responsible decisions when it comes to you,” Hannah tells Sandy about their tentative relationship, while laying out rules that essentially keep him sequestered to a tiny corner of her life.
Later, she gets the kind of gushingly romantic confession that she yearned for in the first season, and it’s completely unappealing to her. Between Adam, Elijah and Sandy she almost has one whole boyfriend, as she tries to manage the relationships in her life without having any idea what she actually wants from them. It’s through Hannah that we see the most achingly awful angles on being young that “Girls” has to offer, which makes her occasional triumphs, when they occur, so very hard-won.